In representation, and thus in representational theatre, there’s always a danger of not living up to the original. It’s a danger that is explicitly noted by playwright David Hare in the programme for The Judas Kiss, his play about two pivotal moments in the life of Oscar Wilde. Answering a question about the daunting task of putting words in the mouth of a man as famous for his witticisms as his literature, Hare refutes the notion of “imitation”, comparing theatre to painting and quoting Picasso’s response to a complaint that his portraits were not lifelike enough: “Oh yes, and how many people do you know who are made of pigment, exist in one plane and can be hung on a wall?”
The approach taken by Hare and by this production in particular, however, is no Picasso. All the facial features are firmly in place, if a little manipulated in the case of Rupert Everett’s Wilde, creating a flat, underwhelming symmetry. The production’s portrayal of Wilde is all too literal, seemingly taking more time over his physical nuances than his emotional ones. Everett is rendered almost unrecognisable, obscured beneath a long mop of hair, liberally applied make-up and padded out clothing. But rather than uncannily evoking Wilde, this astute yet oddly clumsy attention to detail lends a cartoonish dimension to a role that, for all Hare’s protests, looks a lot like impersonation. Besides the risk of a disappointing replica, one of the other problematic idiosyncrasies of representation is that the closer the representation approaches to the real, the more glaring the gulf between the two.
The two biographical turning points on which Hare has chosen to focus are the lead-up to Wilde’s arrest for “indecency”, when he refused to take the opportunity to flee the country, and his time in Naples with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas after his release from prison. Wisely avoiding any attempt at a comprehensive overview of Wilde’s life, these are precisely selected moments, moments seemingly characterised by stasis and apathy – qualities frequently attributed to Wilde by his friends and reflected in Everett’s almost constant anchoring to a chair – but in fact involving deeply revealing decisions on Wilde’s part. Ultimately, his failure to leave the country is framed not as an act of lethargy, but as an act of love and a stubborn refusal to bow to the hypocritical morality of the English aristocracy.
Class and nationality emerge as looming themes, each marking Wilde as an outsider just as much as his homosexuality. While Wilde is imprisoned, his brattish lover Bosie emerges largely unscathed thanks to the shield of his family and position, which will eventually, pragmatically outweigh his relationship with the writer. Perhaps picking up on these ideas of class and privilege, Dale Ferguson’s set, particularly in the first half at the Cadogan hotel, reeks of a dark, slightly ominous opulence. The stage, itself a suggestively funereal black, is swathed in reams of deep purple velvet. The effect is of luxurious claustrophobia, an almost oppressive vision of grandeur that seems to be reaching for a status that eludes it.
As the scene shifts to Naples, the dominant feature of the design is once again constituted by fabric, though this time it is white sheets that drape the relatively bare space. This backdrop, married with the many opportunities for male nudity, has the effect of evoking an almost Classical atmosphere, picking up on the script’s brief allusion to Ancient Greece. In this contrasting simplicity there is also something of the play’s Biblical reference point, with Wilde cast as the persecuted and finally betrayed Christ figure. This is in itself an intriguing upturning of our usual image of the writer, bringing dry wit and cynicism into direct conflict with generosity and a debilitating, almost adolescent love for Bosie, but the poignancy of this departure from biographical cliche struggles to achieve affect.
The affair between Wilde and Bosie, while sitting at the heart of the entire play, never feels fully excavated. Freddie Fox is an adept thrower of tantrums, pacing the stage with all the passionate petulance of a spoilt toddler, but aside from a hideous sense of entitlement we learn very little about this character who so captivated Wilde. The production’s few genuinely moving moments are prompted by the sacrifices Wilde makes out of love, but it is difficult to understand what caused him to fall so hard in the first place.
Alongside the seeming desire of Neil Armfield’s production to present us with an “authentic” (note the inverted commas) portrait of Wilde, the main problem that the piece encounters is a tension between the desire to tell two equally fascinating stories: the complex personal relationship between Bosie and Wilde and the many ramifications – for Victorian morality, for the literary landscape, for the gay community – of Wilde’s trial and imprisonment. Torn between both, the canny decision to limit this depiction to two specific chapters of Wilde’s life is rendered slightly futile by an attempt at breadth that fails to delve sufficiently into any of the competing concerns.